Precious books. This past year has been especially defined by Sharon Salzberg’s loving-kindness book. I also found Beyond Religion to be an important reflection on the ethics and points of agreement in all religion and world views. Karen Armstrong’s biography of the prophet was a fascinating historical read and gripping story. And Iyengar’s Light on Yoga was inspiring, humbling. P.S I am open to book recommendations of the philosophical, spiritual, historical, interesting, anything kind.

Wide net for wisdom

My ‘spiritual’ bookshelf, as it is cornily but conveniently referred to at home, captures an important fact about me — I like to cast a wide net when it comes to wisdom.

This does not mean I am imbibing ‘false prophecy’, as it has been implied to me by people of various religious and non-religious viewpoints, who are often the mirror-image of each other when it comes to their conviction that one thing is nonsense, and the other, pure truth.

It means that I recognise these wisdom tales are part of the shared human story, and to reject them, to remain ignorant about them, is to wilfully tear out chapters of that story.

So eager am I to hear what humans have had to say about life, humanity, God, and how to approach them, there are two unread items kept there purely in case I have a change of heart. I haven’t read Kant, or Jung’s Active Imagination because the technical language just didn’t hold my attention at the time, even though I loved Jung’s autobiography, and have enjoyed reading about Kant’s ideas. (Also, I never finished reading Siddharta, because at the time I had gorged a little on spiritual material following a trip to India in which I read Iyengar’s Light on Yoga and the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion. But after a solid break, and after having had a couple of friends strongly recommend it recently, I have resolved to finish it!)

To some people, especially those who believe, in the very literal sense, that there is only one correct path or type of religious practice for all human beings, it may appear that I am gravely lost, confused — crazy.

I should admit that I have definitely felt a little bit of the latter at times, as I have gone out on a limb to explore the possibility of real and practical solution for persistent problems and patent injustice in society, and a fully realised, satisfied version of me.

But I also trust myself, and I feel less and less thrown by the winds of this venture as time goes on, and as I follow, by small increments, the compass of my heart.

As described in the previous post, my heart fairly recently had something of a powerful spasm and pointed me very firmly in the direction of Islam, demanding me to give it special status above the rest, only to completely humiliate us (me and my heart) by going, ‘hang on a second, sure, there is something about Islam that has rounded out your faith and helped you feel closer to (get back to) the complete you, but this doesn’t mean you have to surrender your natural inclination to keep an open mind.

This doesn’t mean you no longer need to be consoled by Buddhism’s calm reflections on human suffering, and its teachings on self-awareness and compassion. Nor does it mean you don’t need the mental bath of practicing a simple, popularised form of ancient Indian mantra meditation (TM).

It most certainly does not mean that my (now it’s me talking, not my heart) body, mind and soul are not desperate for more of the profound healing and strengthening effects of the ancient and sophisticated religion of Yoga. (Or any exercise for that matter, be it the ancient or the modern kind. I love my mum’s failsafe wisdom; “exercise is like a drug” “the endorphins are so good for you”).

Believing that the humble, regular, communal act of Islamic prayer (or something like it) has the power to heal the world, doesn’t mean that I will no longer identify with what atheists or agnostics say about the dangers of blind faith and indoctrination, or about the need for human beings to take responsibility and effect change rather than be drastically fatalistic.

It doesn’t mean that I will no longer be deeply moved, inspired and personally enriched by the teachings and stories of the vast array of so-called ‘pagan’ religions in human society and history (Pagan meaning non-Abrahamic — basically not Christianity, Judaism or Islam).

The fact that I believe very much in there being only one, all-powerful God that connects all living things, does not bar me from being able to enjoy the rituals, aesthetics and sense of community in these religions, which worship ancestors, multiple Gods, or no God at all.

For instance, I am fascinated by the Okinawan annual tradition of having a picnic at the big family tomb to remember ancestors and ‘update’ them on the family’s news and health. I like the the way children are introduced to the cycle of life, and the naturalness of death from a young age. I love the way these grand tombs, shaped like a mother’s womb, dotted around the island in sometimes spectacular settings, remind me constantly of both the mortality of human life, and the immortality and earthiness of that timeless space, from where all life springs and where all life returns.

I have at times felt very connected to this timeless tranquility in Okinawa, and I suspect it is no coincidence I had a powerful born-again faith experience here (see last post).

I should say, I have spoken to others who have had these ‘bright spark of faith’ (Sharon Salzberg, Faith) moments through exposure to other religions, and they speak of very similar things. Of everything pointing towards that decision. Of having no doubt that it was fate.

Speaking to them reminded me that I should never try to transplant my understanding or experience onto others, because each individual is preciously unique. Each of us uses our own slightly nuanced language to connect with and express spirituality.

Though necessarily communal, religion is also deeply personal, relying on all our facets of perception and awareness to be followed sincerely. (This includes the inner voice that says, ‘hang on, I’m not sure I quite understand or agree with that’).

Moreover, if I am using only words, I cannot be disappointed if others do not relate to or understand my own experience, as I have not the words to describe it.

But through hearts-to heart that are about friendship and personal stories, not ideological debate, I have really related to many people who took up other religions, and also people who have rejected the big religions in favour of new age spirituality, or nothing of the sort.

I have benefited from the honesty and naturally loving ways of many friends and people I have met, whether they identify as practicing faith or not. In particular, I have some very grounded friends and family who are not preoccupied with finding the ideal, or the ideal combination of, spiritual practice. I treasure their company, intelligence, humour and advice.

But there have been times, and I believe there will be times, when those spiritual types, who have been consistently praying, meditating, acting (according to their faith) quietly, sometimes without the respect their practice deserves, are, (as I said in my last post) like a Godsend and really come into their own.

I have personally benefited from other people’s spiritual practice or belief. There are too many people to mention, some strangers, some acquaintances and some close family and friends.

Five amazing women in my close circle come to mind; a long-time practicing Buddhist, a passionate and vivacious TM meditator, and three very loving Catholics in my family. Also I am indebted to some of the yoga teachers I have had, including my current one.

In defence of the products of religion, on which many mistakenly pin all the blame for conflicts as opposed to seeing conflict as an ideological, political, tribal, and human problem, (let alone trying to imagine the conflicts, suffering and problems that could be occurring right now if it weren’t for religion and religious feeling / concepts), it is not just people, but also the places of community and prayer that religion leaves in its path, that are a blessing.

There is something soul-quenching about some of the mosques I have visited and seen, particularly the presence of water at the entrance for washing (water is also present at the temples I have visited in Japan recently). There are also countless peaceful and beautiful churches in which I have been blessed to sit and take a quiet moment to reflect.

I have been silenced, healed by the tranquility of some particularly memorable Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu temples I have seen in India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Japan and Australia.

Borobudur Bhuddist temple, Indonesia. Pic by Dominique Staindl.

The smell of incense wafting from the Chinese temples in Kuala Lumpur, combined with the sound of Indian temple music, the Muslim call-to-prayer, and the breeze of ceiling fans — squeezed onto every inch of spare space in the hot and humid Malaysian capital — to create an eternally spiritual yet relaxed vibe.

I sometimes wonder if that disembodied voice of the call-to-prayer, which seemed to provide a touch of collective transcendence to a busy city, five times a day, would have had such an arresting and powerful effect, had it not been for the sense of freedom in this culturally and spiritually diverse city.

Living in Malaysia taught me that diversity is a blessing. Being exposed to diversity is a blessing. Though my decision to go to KL for a semester of my university degree was a bit of a disorganised and last minute whim (thanks largely to a particular friend who pointed out that I could still afford to go even without the special student grant), it was the perfect place for a girl like me to take some timeout and soak up all the spiritual wisdom on offer.

Oh the bus home in KL while on student exchange. Pic by Dominique Staindl.

I will never forget chatting to a Muslim man on a bus to the airport about my time in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He asked me what I would do when I got home to feel spiritual.

Would I always need to travel, to top up on that feeling? He had a point, which actually makes more sense to me now than then. He wasn’t patronising me as a foolish western woman and sucker for the exotic (thought the latter is certainly true).

He was reminding me, challenging me, to demand my right to be religious and spiritual as a human being.

I think the perception of people of western-nations, among westerners as well as non-westerners, as inherently not being as spiritual as people of non-western cultures, can be very dehumanising. In fact, the assumptions made about what anyone is made up of spiritually (or not made up of), can be quite detrimental to all of our ability to feel compassion.

So I took this man’s comment as a bit of a challenge to maintain that awareness of spirituality in the everyday. So much so, I eventually ended up trying to practice Islam, which I came to believe was a system enabling not just spiritual masters, but anybody to regularly reach both inward and upward to God — to frequently recall that connection to what is beyond this mortal life, and therefore also recall the duty to act and think in a way that most honours your own and other people’s lives. There are people who do this to their full potential naturally without needing to focus on or believe in God. It just comes from being gentle and human.

Others need that sense of guidance, and backing to love properly, especially those who have, for whatever reason, come to be hard on themselves, or lack self love. Or those who have just been hardened by life experiences and a lack of good guidance. (I think there wouldn’t be the need to talk about or seek God so explicitly if it weren’t for modern-day problems and imbalance like detachment from the environment, and mental health issues).

When I talk about having my heart’s intention straightened-out by this focus on God, I’m sure this is the same effect many people who practice other religious rituals feel. It is a similar effect to the one I felt this morning after finally doing 20 minutes of TM meditation, after a few weeks of not doing it at all. A feeling of demanding my right to make good choices that make me and others happy, and to strive to reach my full potential, and get the most out of each moment.

The comment of the man on the bus, who must have no idea what he has set in train, stands out as part of a process, in which I eventually came all the way back home, figuratively speaking, to find and seek the deepest spirituality among the things and people closest to me.

I have realised that none of those exotic religions would have moved me if it weren’t for me, my mind, my heart, my perceptions, my desire to make meaning out of life, and the naturally spiritual state of being human.

But at certain stages in life, sometimes one needs new experiences to cleanse their eyes, to sharpen their perception of things close to home. Which brings me to the last in my list of ‘just because Islam added something to your sense of faith and hope about the world, doesn’t mean……’

Just because my exploration of Islam brought me back to that “inner child” mood of faith and awareness of God, doesn’t make it more important to me than my first experience of religion — the atmosphere of love, tolerance, hope and faith of attending church at a humble Catholic primary school and with my family when I was young.

As I don’t know any different, it is hard to know if this feeling of believing in God and being hopeful in life (and everlasting peace) is due to my early Christian education and what my parents said about God, or just the feeling of love and safety in my family. Probably both.

I think talk of God at school and home sat easily with me as a happy and hopeful kid. The least detailed religious education was, the more it made sense. When things got really detailed, sometimes it became confusing. Was Jesus God, or God’s messenger? and who was the holy ghost? Is God human or beyond human?

Questions about symbolism, ritual and the mathematics of God (was it three or was it one, and how could it be both at once?) unsettled me as I got older, and religion became a bit too cerebral as opposed to practice-based.

In high school, I also spent time with people who were not raised Christian and so had to face the reality I still face — that people won’t always share your religious beliefs. (I am glad I have had my beliefs challenged though as it has enabled me to question and arrive at more sincere, open-minded belief).

I do remember mum used to call me a ‘little nun’ because I had a mini shrine next to my bed, made up of little ornaments my Grandmother gave me (a light pink stone with a picture of Mary and Jesus).

In grade three, I was also thrilled with the first holy communion banner she made me, which was deposited at the end of my bed in the middle of the night (like it was Christmas) as a surprise for the communion the next day.

She had beautifully sewn a chalice and grapes (for the wine) onto the banner, and the words ‘Jesus and Jane, together always’. I still treasure this gift from Gram.

I have also treasured trying to recreate the childhood excitement of Christmas when we make our annual visit to Church for midnight mass. I love singing with my mum. I love it when dad gets out his 1970s Catholic hymn book, “Travelling to Freedom”, and plays the piano, and we lean in trying to follow the words. (I actually have this delicate, old book wrapped up in a scarf, and I am supposed to be learning some songs on guitar! Sorry dad, I will bring it home at Christmas).

As far as rituals go, I remember going to confession a few times at school and always having the same slightly token confession — fighting with my siblings.

It felt good, as it always does, to talk to someone who seems non-judgemental, though I felt shy and awkward, and never said much. I usually walked away with the mild penance of three Our Fathers and a Hail Mary.

I recall doing quite a few rounds of the Rosary when I had glandular fever over Summer holidays in grade 7. It was soothing and distracting. Ritual is just that. A way to occupy your mind and heart with something positive, distracting, refreshing.

The ritual of church attendance gradually waned in my family, and has done more widely in my society over the years, but when I do go for that annual Christmas mass, or for weddings, christenings and funerals, I am still moved by hymns, Bible passages and preachers who emulate the tolerance and love of Christian teachings, (not so much the ones who think I am going to hell unless I focus all of my mind and spiritual effort on Jesus, or the ones who put all of this story about my encounter with Islam down to the devil’s work. But I like to think nobody really believes any of that deep down).

I wonder, but I’m not sure as I don’t know any different, if my sense of faith as a child came from my parents’ Christian background and educations. (Dad went to a Jesuit school, where he says he respected the intellect of the priests who were well-versed in theology, and mum boarded at a Catholic school where she said the nuns were very kind, and where she enjoyed the rituals of quiet time in church, and singing, between the quiet times).

Or, if a lot of these values, such as trust in God and service to your fellow woman and man, are naturally programmed from thousands of years of human spirituality.

I do think Jesus brought something very special when he came to earth, as did the other prophets and sages, who have helped human societies evolve out of dark times (we often forget how dark).

These values of forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, non-violence, trust in God (or the universe if you prefer), and humility (gratitude and non-greed) have set high bars for societies over time, and we have come a long way.

But of course, we still have a fair way to go to establish these as the lasting human traits, and a long way to go to express the sense of universality, inclusiveness and grace that I believe and hope was at the core of prophets’ teachings.

What I do know, is that religion or spiritual practice of some sort can help affirm human values and traits such as forbearance, honesty, striving, humility, forgiveness, compassion, and acceptance — and ensure they are not overcome by their opposites.

So what is it going to be for me in terms of spiritual practice? My heart is telling me a few things, but the clearest messages are simple. You love Yoga and feel grounded when you do it. Meditation never fails to improve your focus and mood. And sometimes Islamic prayer, particularly the ritual of washing your hands and face and feet, can really, deeply, refresh you.

On top of all this, keeping a ‘spiritual’ bookshelf and loading it with words that teach and comfort the heart, is a prayer in itself.

So why deny myself any one of these things?

Meanwhile, my interactions with and treatment of others have to come before all of this — better go and cook dinner for me and my husband!

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